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Wood from the Carolinas is increasingly being used overseas for energy. While the industry creates jobs, communities are also paying a price. In this series, reporters from WFAE and WUNC visit communities feeding the world’s appetite for wood energy.

Controversial wood pellet plant in Sampson County spurs debate over environmental injustice, economic benefits

The main office at Enviva's wood pellet plant in Sampson County, NC
Celeste Gracia
The main office at Enviva's wood pellet plant in Sampson County, NC.

In this two-part series "The Wood Energy Dilemma," reporters from WFAE and WUNC visit communities feeding the world’s appetite for wood energy.

On a bright fall morning, a never-ending stream of large trucks — many filled with logs — enter and exit a wood pellet facility in rural Sampson County.

The vehicles pass a checkpoint, then disappear behind a chain-link fence protecting bulky equipment that emits a constant humming and grinding sound.

This plant is run by Enviva, the world's largest producer of industrial wood pellets. It's one of the company's four facilities in North Carolina. The wood pellets produced here are shipped to Europe, where they are burned for energy in plants that previously burned coal.

While ongoing international arguments over carbon calculations and wood burning's role in turbocharging climate change are vitally important, how the industry impacts local communities locally is equally controversial.

A quarter of a mile away from the wood pellet plant in Sampson County is a small neighborhood of about two dozen modest houses and mobile homes.

Latony Herring lives here with his family and he describes the plant's noises as "a loud boom sound you can feel in your feet."

"You could be doing dominoes on the floor and it'll knock every one of them down," Herring said. "So that's aggravating. And I'm sitting on a cement slab," he said about his home's construction.

Besides the thunderous sounds, Herring also said trucks heading for the plant usually speed down the service road in front of his house.

"We got kids out here. I don’t let my kids come outside [anymore] because I don’t know when the trucks are going to come," Herring said. "Their ball rolls out the street, [the driver] can’t stop, they’re gone. And I can’t do that."

Next door, John Altmon has lived in this neighborhood for almost 20 years. He said it used to be quiet before Enviva moved in.

"You know that machinery you hear all the time? We didn’t have none of that," Altmon said. "We didn’t have too much dust either, like that smoke that comes up from over there ... And that noise. It’s like a grinding and a banging and all that."

But around the corner, Lillian Mincy feels differently about the plant. She said the noise, dust, and trucks have never bothered her.

"No problem at all. I think it's great for the community, for the neighborhood, for people to get jobs," Mincy said.

Many of the residents in this neighborhood are Black or Hispanic, and their families have owned these homes for generations.

It seems as though the community is evenly split. Half agree with Altmon and Herring: the wood pellet plant is bothersome and negatively impacts their livelihood. The other half agree more with Mincy: the facility is great for the economy.

Environmental advocates are concerned the wood pellet plant will have a long-term negative impact on the overall well-being of the community.

“I believe that even though there may be some economic benefit, that the detriments that occur are much worse than the alleged economic benefit that comes with these industries being here,” said Sherri White-Williamson, the environmental justice policy director with the North Carolina Conservation Network.

She points out that Sampson County is also home to industrial hog farms and the state’s largest landfill, so to her, Enviva’s presence just exacerbates the issues this community is already facing.

“I would say the situation is very urgent at this point, because we have become an extractive county and extractive country,” White-Williamson said.

She alleges that Enviva is decreasing resiliency and contributing to deforestation by cutting down trees to produce wood pellets.

“Sampson County is in the path of most storms. [Enviva is] reducing the ability of communities to protect themselves from flooding,” she said.

Enviva strongly refutes that claim. The company says its wood pellets come from low-value wood fiber, mill residues, tree limbs, and trees cut during forest thinnings. Additionally, Enviva says it works with its suppliers to make sure that trees are regenerated.

In a Zoom call coordinated by Enviva and the National Press Foundation, Enviva Communications Director Yana Kravtsova said the health of community members is a priority.

"We are in those communities. We live and work with the people there," Kravtsova said. "People go to the same church, same deli, same gas station. So we hear from people where we live, where we work, if something is not right."

Since opening in October 2016, Enviva’s facility in Sampson County has received five air quality violations from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality for emitting too much carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds.

In an emailed statement, Enviva said its facilities are in compliance with all environmental regulations, “presenting no risk or issue to public health or the environment. To suggest otherwise would be a false representation.”

Also speaking on this organized Zoom call was Ray Jordan, the assistant director for the Sampson County Economic Development Commission. He agreed with the sentiment that Enviva is a valued community partner.

"Enviva, since they’ve been in our community, has paid in $4.1 million in property taxes," Jordan said. "That makes them the third-largest taxpayer in Sampson County. So obviously we're very thrilled to have them here. We've had a good relationship since day one."

In an emailed response to WUNC, the Sampson County Economic Development Commission added that "every resident and business in Sampson County benefits from Enviva’s presence in the county." The commission said Enviva supports local organizations and initiatives, like community churches and colleges.

Back in the neighborhood across from Enviva’s plant, Latony Herring said he just wants to feel more comfortable at home.

“We’re not going nowhere and hopefully the noise will stop. Or at least they can stop us from feeling it," Herring said. "That feeling, when you feel it… please. If I can get rid of that, I’d be A-OK.”

Correction: Because of an editing error, a previous version of the story misidentified Yana Kravtsova as communications director for the National Press Foundation. The story has been updated to reflect Kravtsova's position as communications director for Enviva.

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.
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